Morning walk brings nigh
Fragrance of childhood summer
Earth meets heaven here.
I think this one is about memory, sense memory at that. I’ve heard that olfactory memory can be pretty powerful. I’ve been particularly impressed with the musings of the late Douglas Adams in his one nonfiction book, Last Chance to See (1991), written with Mark Carwardine. In particular, he wrote about the White Rhino, its good sense of smell, and its poor vision. Adams speculated that the rhino might have a different sense of time than we who rely primarily on our vision. With a keen sense of smell, they might be able to tell, not only what had been present days ago, but also, if the wind direction was right, what might be coming. Of course the point of the book is to draw attention to a handful of endangered species, of which the White Rhino is one. It may be that this particular perception is a liability when faced with us humans.
Recently, too, in a guided meditation at the end of a yoga class, an instructor walked us through memory in each of the five senses. But on the particular morning I scribbled this haiku on the back of a postal receipt, literally while walking, I was smelling things that reminded me of things I smelled in the Adirondacks, while working on staff at a scout camp. There was a certain end–of–summer fragrance in the air, a sweetness borne of decay, itself the natural result of the abundance we have seen here in Northeastern Massachusetts. Bittersweetness, I should say, for it signals that summer is drawing to a close.
Indeed, this photo was taken the last time I visited the Adirondacks. Right before college, my dad, my best high school buddy and I took a road trip up to visit my brother at a scout camp where I had spent three years on staff, and before that three years as a camper. That’s them in the background.
This wistful end of summer also reminds me of a song by Greg Brown, “Walking Down to Casey’s.” It’s a story told from the point of view of a young boy living in a rural area, walking down to a store “to get a Diet Coke for Mom,” musing on the concerns of the day, including the local bully and his absentee father.
But then the song swells to this self–awareness that begins to dawn on this young boy, as it had dawned on me amidst those big mountains as a youth.
Summer’s almost over
Boy I hate to see it
When the days get shorter
Maybe we’ll run away
Me and my brother gonna run away
My brother said let’s go to China
I said No we’d have to work real hard there
I learned all about it last year
You learn all about it next year
Sometimes I feel somethin’
Real big inside me and I think that I’ll start cryin’
Oh but I usually start laughin’
My brother says I’m crazy
Ah but he don’t know nuthin’
He’s only in the third grade
So I guess that he’s alright
Just the other day, I had encountered another instance of the bittersweetness of life in song. One rainy afternoon, I thought to play Bebel Gilberto’s “August Day Song.” But right before it on the album is the absolutely beguiling “Samba da Bençao,” “Samba of the Blessing.”
I don’t know Portugese, but studied Latin, French and Spanish, other romance languages, so I thought I could pick out words like “sad” and “poem.” I decided to look up the English lyrics. The following in particular caught my eye.
To make a samba is not like telling a joke
And who makes samba like this is worth nothing
The good samba is a kind of prayer
Because samba is the sadness that sways
And sadness is always hopeful
Of one day not being sad any more
How wonderful to come around to this, to look non-dually at happiness and sadness as two parts of the same reality. The latter is to be savored as well, for the contrast it provides. How would we know how good things were if it were not for the sadness that sometimes also visits? Were it not for death, how would we know how precious life is? Indeed, in all of the retrospectives on the career of Steve Jobs, I hope people don’t forget this nugget I caught on Radio Boston, an excerpt from his commencement speech at Stanford from 2005. In particular, he talks about facing the reality of his cancer diagnosis.
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Not to be flip about this, but we get a twofer in this excerpt: a non-dual view and a heart-based theme, both characteristic of Anusara. Nor do I want to be too heavy about this, dwelling on sadness and death. In the present moment, it is still summer, mostly everyone I know is reasonably healthy, the academic year is “new,” and there is still much to savor.
At the same time, much is changing. My favorite yoga teacher has moved away, there’s less Anusara on the schedule of the studio I have considered my home, and there’s new construction and new leadership at the institutions where I teach. Change is inevitable, and our gift of memory allows us not only to honor the past, but to greet what arrives with integrity. In particular, we wish to maintain whatever glimpses of our true nature have arrived at any point along our journey.
I should like to close by recalling something I wrote about in the beginning of the summer (!) in my post on “Church of the Holy Pajamas,” an excerpt from the poem “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens.
Divinity must live within herself;
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.
Touching the cycle of the seasons, the shortening days, the fragrance of memories, the approach of autumn and its adumbration of death and dissolution, we also recall the lengthening of days, the approach of spring with its promise of new life and renewal, “all pleasures and all pains,” for in all we touch what is holy. May you swing in your life like a samba.